I was working at home, as our four-month old daughter was sick.
Around 8:00 a.m., I dropped off our two other kids at grade school. My wife was working on the 46th floor at Liberty Place, having taken the train. Three of her six siblings lived in greater-DC; two worked at the Department of Labor; one worked in Manhattan and commuted daily to the World Trade Center subway stop.
I was watching “Imus in the Morning,” MSNBC’s simulcast of the New York City-based radio broadcast. Sometime after 8:30 a.m., they said there are reports that a small, private plane crashed into one of the Twin Towers in NYC.
I called a friend to talk about whatever was important in politics at that time, the morning of September 11, 2001. I switched from Imus to the Today Show, to hear what they were reporting about this bizarre crash. We kept talking about whatever seemed important.
On TV, there were now reports that maybe a “missing” United Airlines plane actually had hit the North Tower. We were talking about how bizarre this was. Was the pilot drunk? Did the instruments fail? Sun in his eyes?
At 9:03 a.m, it became clear that the first crash was probably that missing United Airlines plane. As we watched, a second, giant United Airlines plane crashed directly into the South Tower.
Not a small plane. Not an accident.
Something was very wrong. We ended our call and I spoke to my wife, Chris, who said people at work weren’t really sure of the tragedy’s impact.
I explained that she should come home immediately. Chris left for home after a third plane crashed into the Pentagon and the fourth into a field in western Pennsylvania. She planned to catch the SEPTA train at Suburban Station.
Chris soon learned what millions of Americans were learning, not only in NYC or DC but across America. Every plane was grounded. No trains were running. Many tunnels were closed to cars. President George W. Bush and local officials had ordered most mass transit vehicles to stop. They didn’t know what plane, train, truck or ship might be loaded with explosives or was prepared to ram into something else. (An impromptu meeting of “train buddies” lead Chris to a shared cab and eventually home.)
The President had been attending “story-time” at a Florida elementary school. He soon departed and was heading to where? The White House? A military base near Florida, or maybe the Midwest? What we now know is they didn’t want anyone to know where he was going. He was running operations from Air Force One.
In 2001, the iPhone had not been invented. Most people didn’t know how or why they would “text” from their flip phones. The Internet wasn’t yet omnipresent. There were few blogs. Many turned to CNN on TV or their desktops. No Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or podcasts existed.
We learned that members of Congress with Blackberries were able to communicate on “SMS text,” which was important because it became very difficult to get through on our “cellular phones,” especially along the Washington to Boston corridor. Cell towers were not built to withstand millions of people wanting to check in, call home, or find out about business or class trips to New York.
Millions of us watched the Towers crumble before our eyes. We saw the Pentagon burning. We saw flames and smoke from a field in Pennsylvania — why there? How?
Whatever one thinks of Rudy Giuliani today, millions of us know him as the mayor who was covered in dust as he had been working in nearby Tower 7, the site of the initial command center. As the President was in a secure location, Rudy was the first public official to speak to not only New Yorkers, but the world. He calmly yet forcefully reassured all of us:
“Tomorrow New York is going to be here. And we’re going to rebuild, and we’re going to be stronger than we were before…I want the people of New York to be an example to the rest of the country, and the rest of the world, that terrorism can’t stop us.”
Most TV stations switched to still screens with somber music of an American flag or a memorial to the Towers pre-collapse. Many simply broadcast CNN’s coverage. Those of us who were trying to work and “carry on” soon realized that we couldn’t. We shouldn’t.
For days, we saw the smoke. We heard stories of the firefighters, EMS and police of New York and the NY/NJ Port Authority. The men and women who ran into the burning towers — who climbed up the stairs of 110 story buildings carrying up to 80 pounds of gear. As the dirt got thicker, the chaos grew and the heat increased, they soldiered-on up into the buildings. Escorting people out for as long as they could. Until…
At the Pentagon, the people who were to protect us, were needing protection — to be rescued and comforted.
In Shanksville, sat an enormous hole, a burnt field and not much else. We now know that this plane was intended to hit the Capitol or the White House, but the passengers took over flight-93. We know of one hero, Todd Beemer, who spoke to his wife on an airplane phone, hearing him tell his plane allies: “Let’s roll” before silence…
We learned of people opening homes to strangers needing to clean-up, get water or call home. Of churches becoming rest, recovery and even surgical centers; restaurants and caterers rushing food to command posts, if they could get close enough.
Days later, fire and rescue teams and volunteers drove to NYC and walked blocks to the site to offer to search, recover, move debris.
The President did speak to the nation on 9/11, reassuring us that we would recover. On the 14th, Bush did go to “ground zero,” standing with rescue workers to offer them words of comfort. Almost no one could hear him; so he grabbed that now famous bullhorn:
“I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” And soon, Al-Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan did “hear us.”
On September 11, 2001, 2,977 people of all ages — mostly but not entirely Americans — went about their day: boarding planes for work, job interviews, to go home, visit family or vacation; went to work as secretaries, accountants, maintenance staff, coffee baristas or military staff dealing with requests from posts around the world; rushing to business meetings or their offices at the Capitol or Tower #7; going to work as police and first responders whose families knew deep down that they might not come home, but they had come home every other day thus far.
This is the 22nd anniversary. I have a growing concern that too many of my generation don’t talk about it; and, too many of my children’s and even younger generations know almost nothing about it.
True evil does exist. Whether we want to accept it or not, America is the embodiment of Liberty: our enemies hate us for it, and our allies depend on us for it. True heroes do exist. Americans are capable of unity of purpose.
We must never forget. We must always remember. And we must remember why we remember.
Guy Ciarrocchi is a Fellow with the Commonwealth Foundation. He writes for Broad+Liberty and RealClear Pennsylvania. Follow him @PaSuburbsGuy